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Fighting climate change down on the farm in Pennsylvania

There's more than 50,000 farms in Pennsylvania.

Brett Reinford of Reinford Farms explains the process of creating methane gas from food and animal waste at his farm in Mifflintown, Pa. on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Reinford has placed two methane digesters on the farm and uses the gas to generate enough electricity to operate his farm and is able to sell excess energy to the grid.
Brett Reinford of Reinford Farms explains the process of creating methane gas from food and animal waste at his farm in Mifflintown, Pa. on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. Reinford has placed two methane digesters on the farm and uses the gas to generate enough electricity to operate his farm and is able to sell excess energy to the grid.Read moreRalph Wilson

MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. — With about 800 dairy cows dropping tons of manure each day, visitors to Reinford Farms here in Juniata County would expect to be walloped by certain barnyard scents.

On a recent breezy autumn afternoon, though, only a hint of Holstein wafted through the air. That’s on account of the methane digester downhill from the barns. It resembles a covered swimming pool, 18 feet deep, filled with cow manure. Methane, the gas produced by that manure, is pumped out to heat and electrify the barns, the milking carousel, and even the farmhouse where Brett Reinford’s parents live. There’s so much manure, making so much methane, that Reinford sends electricity back to the grid.

“We make enough electricity here to power a hundred houses,” said Brett Reinford, a partner in the farm his father started.

The farm, just miles from the Juniata River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is at the forefront of fighting climate change in Pennsylvania, but conservation groups said the state is lagging behind.

“Not only is it behind, it is the laggard,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “All the other states are at least making progress.”

Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement a $737 million Chesapeake Bay Resilient Farms Initiative. That money would help Pennsylvania farmers reduce nitrogen and improve water quality for the watershed, which includes the Susquehanna River.

“Pennsylvania agriculture has stepped up to the challenge and has a plan,” Wolf said. “Farmers are waiting to jump into action.”

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture, there were 52,700 farms covering 7.3 million acres in Pennsylvania in 2019. The average size of those farms is 139 acres, smaller than the 444-acre average, nationwide. While the state, one of six in the Chesapeake watershed, has been called out by conservationists, there has been progress, said Shannon Powers, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture. Conservation grants are available, as well as Farm Vitality grants that can help families with business plans and transfer of ownership.

At Reinford’s farm, the two methane digesters cost about $4 million. Reinford said half of those expenses were covered by grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Commonwealth Financing Authority. The family initially sought out the methane digester to control odor.

“My dad wanted to be a good neighbor,” he said.

Surprisingly, the methane digesters sparked a whole new business for the Reinfords, the reason why cans of expired cat food, ravioli, and produce are delivered there almost daily. Local businesses, including major supermarket chains, are eager to recycle materials and dispose of food waste, ethically, and inside a metal barn on the farm, Reinford has constructed a “depackager” that separates the food from its packaging. The food gets pumped into the methane digester with the cow manure and the materials are recycled. They can depackage anything not in glass.

“Basically, these companies want to send as little as possible to the landfill, and we help them do it,” he said.

Reinford said the liquids from the methane digester are used as fertilizer while dry, refined manure is used as bedding for the dairy cows.

“The goal is to be zero waste,” he said.

Although there are relatively few methane digesters on Pennsylvania farms, Reinford said plenty of farmers have come to check them out. That type of farmer-to-farmer education is key to making progress against climate change and poor water quality, Powers said.

“There will always be some resistance to change,” Powers said. “For example, there’s been a push to plant buffers along creeks, and farmers often resist that because they believe the buffer takes away income. They want as much field as possible.”

Dairy and beef cattle have often taken the brunt of the blame for agriculture’s role in climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 25% of the methane in the United States comes from cows in the form of burps and farts. The biggest source of methane comes from oil and gas systems. Dave Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association, said dairy farmers have a lot of opportunity to help combat climate change. If there’s resistance, Smith said, the market often demands the changes.

“It’s happening already,” Smith said. “Our end users are driving better practices.”

Smith pointed to research being done with cow feed at the University of California-Davis that claims to reduce methane from burps by 82%. The answer, university researchers found, is seaweed.

“The seaweed inhibits an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that contributes to methane production,” the researchers wrote in March.

One group in Pennsylvania is also trying to change plowing, one of farming’s oldest customs, a practice done by generations for hundreds of years. The Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance says farmers don’t need to plow at all, encouraging them to plant “cover crops” that stay in the fields through fall and winter.

“The basic philosophy is that you want living roots in the ground all season,” said Jay Howes, an administrator with the group. “We ask farmers to put the plows away and not go chopping up the soil and releasing all the carbon into the atmosphere.”

Howes said farmers can plant various cover crops, including types of rye and millet, into their corn and soybean fields after harvest. He said that many farmers, particularly in Western Pennsylvania, are still resistant, but that the practice is spreading.

“Farmers listen to other farmers and we have mentoring days where we explain the process,” said Howes, a former farmer.

Reinford Farms also plants cover crops when their corn is harvested. Brett Reinford said it’s simply another way to make the farm sustainable for future generations. He and his brothers plan to take over when his parents retire. His children see the place as a playland, as he did when he was a child.

“When we talk about sustainability, it’s twofold because everything that we do that’s good for the environment usually saves us some money in the end,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense. We make money and protect the environment.”